Amidst the horror of pictures from Gaza, of relentless rioting in the West Bank, of in-your-face patriotism everywhere you turn; “Stronger together”, “Support the IDF”, “I pursued my enemies and destroyed them, and did not turn back until they were consumed” (2 Samuel 22:38) on banners at roundabouts- in the midst of all of this hate, and fear, is a glimmer of hope. It is not yet widespread- if you want to find it, you must look. But it is there. It can not be named, nor can the participants be identified, due to the extremely sensitive nature of the work involved and the context in which participants are working in.
What I am speaking of is a pilot project bringing together Israeli settlers and local neighbouring Palestinians, and even former prisoners, in an effort to create good relations. Not only do participants face challenges in their own communities for being involved in such an itiative, due to the stigma of “normalisation” or collaborating “with the enemy”, they also face structural challenges brought about by the fact that they are operating in area C, under total Israeli control. Due to restrictions in Area C, the centre in which the participants work and meet is not connected to water or electricity; they can not build a proper structure nor have a cement roof. Yet they have made this small piece of land a haven for all those who seek peace and dialogue. 1200 people- peace activists, settlers, Palestinians, Israelis, internationals- have been hosted by this low-key group since February 2014. They hosted a kids camp at the end of August to which Palestinian and settler children were invited to play toegther, learn about the resident animals, and go on a rare trip to the beach, despite the ongoing risk of rocket fire at the time.
It is a rare place where all parties to the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians, can come to without the need for special permits. All come with one mission- to learn to talk and express oneself in a non-violent way, and to learn to listen. The strength and courage of those partaking in this experiment can not be underestimated given the tense conditions they are all, on both sides, living under. Demonization of “the other” is often the norm in both Israeli and Palestinian society, any deviation from this and you are considered to be on the other side. Yet this centre has become an open door for those who wish to knock, a rare place of peace in this broken land. It has been created by those who themselves have been the most broken by this conflict, and it is only they who can help heal each other again.
The entire Israeli and Palestinian people require healing and dialogue. They are all broken in some way. They need somewhere to go where they can hear the truth of the other, and where their truth can also be heard. This centre shows Israelis that there are Palestinians who they do not need to fear, who do not desire their destruction. It shows Palestinians that there are Israelis who care about their condition, who will help them fight for their rights, and who they can work with, not against. It is not about “us” against “them”. It is about two peoples, stuck in a difficult, but not impossible, situation, and seeking a peaceful way out- together.
One rabbi who has recently become involved in working with the centre said that he has lived in the settlements for 35 years, and it is only since becoming involved in the centre that he has undergone a “personal transformation” and come to realise “other truths” that are not his own.
Here, former Palestinian prisoners sit with settlers, and discuss ways to live together in the future. The future, a shared future, has become a possibility. They look an odd bunch- some in suits, some in t-shirts, some agricultural workers, some rabbis, some wearing kippahs, tallit and tzitzit, yet all calling each other “brother” or “sister”. Somehow, they are making it work. They, who each at one point in their life would never have considered such an initiative possible. Each made their own journey which led them here. I can think of no better place for peace, a real peace between real people, to begin.
Endnote: should anybody wish to contribute to the development of the centre, which requires solar panels for electricity, a water tank collector, a temporary roof and a simple children’s playground, please contact the author.